Spike Chunsoft have an amazing track record when it comes to visual novels, with previous series like Zero Escape and Dangan Ronpa being some of the most well written and wildly successful entries in an otherwise niche genre. So, naturally, when they published a new game/visual novel, I immediately parted with my money without even asking any questions because I am 100% on board for it. So, was it worth my blind assumption and purchase? Short answer, yes. Long answer: Read the review (please).
Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)
The player steps into the role of Kaname Date, an amnesiac detective in the not too distant future with a super top secret department of the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department known as the Advanced Brain Investigation Squad, or, ABIS. Essentially, when no one can get answers out of suspects, they get put into a big fancy machine, which allows the detective, called a ‘Psyncer’, to enter the dream world of the suspect or person being questioned, which is called a ‘Somnium’. They have 6 minutes to explore this world, get the information they need, or get out, lest the psyncer’s consciousness be absorbed by the suspect’s.
This all comes in handy with a new series of murders Date is sent to investigate, and the more he investigates, the more he discovers everything seems to be somehow linked to his memory loss of six years ago. Yet, at the same time, the investigation seems to constantly be raising more questions than it answers. And, of course, instead of telling a straight A to B story, this game takes notes out of the Zero Escape book of alternate timelines and parallel universes.
For example, say you’re in the Somnium of one person, but there are multiple ways to solve the puzzles presented (which I’ll get to later). If you solve puzzle A, you’ll be on a different path than puzzle B. Puzzle A might result in different information which will cause Date to react differently than he would have with puzzle B, and as a result, a character that might have otherwise died could survive, or Date might spend more time with a different character and learn more about them he wouldn’t have in the other route.
The game requires exploration of all the different routes for a complete look at the story, though it’s not as important an element as it was in Zero Escape. Instead of playing directly into the narrative, it all leads more to a ‘this is what could have happened’ scenario that allows the player to get a better understanding of the story, though in saying that I did find myself questioning why it was used at all at times. It was nice to learn more about the world and explore the ‘what if’ scenarios, but a lot of the information feels as though it could have been delivered in one dedicated scenario with a wider approach to exploration.
The game itself is split into two distinct gameplay styles. The day to day visual novel style exploration, and the Somnium puzzle sections which are a third person interactive style of play.
The visual novel style is incredibly well done, fully voiced, and full of interesting bits and pieces to examine and insightful conversations to have. Though there aren’t a lot of locations and everything is super linear and fixed in terms of ‘do this, which means you can do this, which will give you three places to go, the order doesn’t matter because you’ll always end up here’. So in that sense it feels a little restrictive, because it all has to feed into a set plot structure with the different story branches.
Though it didn’t bother me too much, because I was too focused on the absorbing story and needing to know what happened next, and the amazing cast of characters with their hilarious dialogue. It’s certainly not as philosophy heavy like Zero Escape, or quite as violent, though you will see a lot of corpses and if you have any phobia involving stuff related to eyes, namely, pulling them out, this might not be your cup of tea.
The story has a lot of serious beats inbetween all the hilarity, and just when you think you’ve got one character figured out, something else will happen that will either turn them into a bit of a joke, or turn them into a serious character that will give you a lot of conflicted feelings.
Somnium exploration is the only area that involves puzzles, and the puzzles themselves are, naturally, based on dream logic. All puzzles need to be solved in six minutes, with each action taking a certain amount of time, and time stalling when the player stands still to allow them to think about their next move. The Somnium segments are explored through Date’s AI partner that also happens to be his eyeball, Aiba, and are filled with all the same kinds of humor.
There’s plenty of items to be examined, each item offers several choices, and each choice will take precious time off your counter. So there’s a sort of decision between trying to play the game and solve the puzzle, or trying to see everything. Thankfully, any sequences can be replayed at any time, which is needed to unlock alternate routes in the timeline, as well as allowing the current Somnium sequence to be restarted at any time, or restarted from checkpoints (though this function is limited).
It allows plenty of room for trial and error, which in a puzzle game situation that literally runs on dream logic, can be hugely helpful. Each Somnium is made up of several mental locks that need to be navigated to discover the truth. For example, a mental lock might be overcome by the power of dance, because that’s what’s important to the suspect. Or, perhaps it will be overcome by delving a little deeper to discover their hidden secrets, with more negative effects on the suspect and the timeline as a result.
Dreams (Fleetwood Mac, 1977)
All in all, AI: Somnium Files is a great way to scratch that surreal, plot twisty itch left by other Spike Chunsoft titles, though in comparison it can pale in a few areas. I never really felt like I had much choice, or that I was making any huge discoveries, feeling like a more passive observer in the events. It also wasn’t quite as deep or thought-provoking, but it still managed to make my head spin a few times with each realisation of the plot moving forward.
It’s still a brilliant title, even if it does have a few unnecessary features but I can absolutely overlook them thanks to the amazing writing, thrilling twists and also my AI partner who is also my eye who also can jump out of my eye socket at any given time and turn into a weird hamster thing. It’s a good game.
AI: Somnium Files is out now on PS4, Switch and PC.